They are using Tasers at Dale Farm

Why it is right to be critical of the police.

Our society not only tolerates the sort of people who want to wear uniforms and want to use weapons against civilians, it actually employs them to do so. And today some of these people may well be using Tasers against travellers at Dale Farm.

Of course, having a professional and trained police force is better than the alternative, and in no sensible way can we be described as being in a police state. However, there will be those who read the first paragraph of this post and will be outraged at my apparent disdain. The police do a difficult job, they will say, and one should just be grateful for what they do. One should not be so dismissive, others will remark, especially if you do not know the pressures and stress that the police face routinely. The feature that many of these responses will share is they are non sequiturs: they deal with something which has not been said, and criticise objections which have not been made.

There are many people -- not just police officers -- who do not want to hear any criticism of the police and will immediately seek to close it down. Any adverse comment about the police will mean that one is either a dangerous anarchist wanting a lawless and brutal society, or a naive fool not realising just how lucky they are to be kept safe. It is easy to be brave from a distance. And so on. One must always remember the thin blue line.

Such responses are part of a wider problem. As a society we are actually not very good at holding the police to account, and -- frankly -- the police are not very good at taking criticism. Accordingly, we have a situation where the police are generally left to get on with their work in return for them generally not misusing their rights and privileges. The failure of any efficient mechanisms for scrutinising the police then only become obvious with a suspicious death or some public order failure which cannot be ignored. In the meantime, the police can get away with, say, casually exceeding their powers or taking payments from private investigators as long as our streets are safe and they respond promptly to 999 calls.

One can wonder how long this unofficial social contract can last. It surely is not sustainable, especially with modern communications. The police have been caught out repeatedly lying in the aftermath of fatalities. Their attempts to spin and evade legitimate concerns about misconduct are legion. Individual police officers often threaten those who criticise with libel actions, whilst chief constables employ ever-growing (and often unhelpful) PR departments. And, as for the police complaints commission, one can be surprised that its formal name includes the word "independent". But it may be that an age of deference is passing.

It is right that in a liberal and democratic society the State has a monopoly in the use of coercive force against citizens, but this monopoly has to be balanced with accountability and transparency. Those who rush to rubbish anyone questioning the police, or are quickly dismissive of those complaining of the use of force, are in fact not helping serving officers. They are instead entrenching a needless lack of effective communication. The abuse of libel and the over-use of PR professionals are similarly undesirable features of modern policing. However, policing ultimately requires practical co-operation and implicit consent. Wise police officers know this.

The more openly critical we can be of those who have the power to coerce us, the better. And the more the police can explain their decisions and justify their actions, the better. After all, they can have nothing to hide; even the ones wearing paramilitary uniforms and using weapons at Dale Farm.

 

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman. He also writes the Jack of Kent blog and at The Lawyer.

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.